Ghosts, new-arriv’d, and strangers to these plains,
Know not the palace, where grim Pluto reigns.
They journey doubtful, nor the road can tell,
Which leads to the metropolis of Hell
—Ovid, The Metamorphoses
Tiberius awakes . . . or rather, something awakes in Tiberius’s body. He struggles to gain the upper hand over his consciousness, and fails. His awareness is relegated to that of an observer, as Hostilinus commandeers the vessel, with full command of his former disciplines and knowledge. Taurus had grown almost cavalier about the act of diablerie, and able to ignore the voices screaming in his head for some time after the ungodly act. But this, this is something entirely different. An individual as old and powerful as the Eyeless One and as powerful in sorcery presents a whole new experience.
As the possessed gladiator strides through the Necropolis, he realizes that his feet are taking him to the Lance’s sanctum. Almost without thinking, his hands go to his face, and he rends his eyes from the sockets, investing the Willpower to keep them unhealed for the night.
Once he reaches the church, he is disgusted to see Rhetrix having usurped his place. He challenges her, and she initially rebukes him on the assumption that this is one of the unbelievers mocking her. However, it quickly becomes clear that this unexpected (and to her eyes, unworthy) vessel contains if not her former leader, then something equally powerful and frightening.
Rhetrix’s great secret, known to none, not even her sire or her former bishop, is that she has lost her faith. Ironically, she was embraced as a reward for her depth of faith in God, but in crossing that dark river to immortality, she lost her God. What she does have is fear and ambition, and she is not going to allow the former to get in the way of the latter.
Her second secret is that Hostilinus does not know that she stole the secrets of blood sorcery from the cave of their birth in Thebes. She throws caution to the wind and attacks him, in front of the whole congregation. However, Hostilinus’ powers are far superior (it’s one thing to steal a book about martial arts, after all, even a very good book, another to spend centuries practicing and studying to become a master, after all). She is barely able to use the magic she has stolen, while he repels her every thrust and parry with ease, resisting frenzy at every turn.
Finally, she is beaten into torpor and he has some acolytes remove the body, once more regaining his control over the Lance ascendant. But whose hand is it, really, that grasps the lance?
• • •
Meanwhile, Gaius, Lucius, and Violia attend the meeting of the Senex. Nocturna sends word that she won’t be present as a select council of Augurs is attempting some sorcery intended to guard the Julii, and her presence is needed, but she will meet up with them later, hopefully protected by a veil which cannot be pierced by the Striges’ hungry eyes and deadly talons. She adds that one of her fellows will be in the Senex, and is to be trusted no matter how unlikely his words may seem.
When the three propinquii arrive, the Camarilla is sparsely filled, a few ragged Julii guarded by wary-looking members of the Legio. At the center, Victrix, accompanied by two fellow soldiers, is speaking with one of those Julii, this one in the robes of a Vaticinator. One of the soldiers tells Gaius that Julia Sabina has ordered them to round up all the remaining Julii and escort them to the chamber, so that they may be properly protected. Gaius says little to this, besides asking when the Senex leader is at this time. The soldier answers that she should return shortly; she’s bravely chosen to lead the hunt for lost and frightened Julii, to help bring them together.
At this moment, the conversation is interrupted by Festus, the Vaticinator, who tells Gaius and Violia that there is amazing news—the tomb of Julius Aulus Senex has been located, and he is proceeding there forthwith to try and awaken the true Prince of the City. As the two coterie members are so high in status, he asks if they would like to accompany him, which, of course, they do.
• • •
The directions on the scroll Festus clutches lead the group deep into the Necropolis—in fact, the group slowly realizes, to the very area where Vitalia, the Etruscan sire of heroes and villains, is entombed. Her tomb is resealed as though it had never been opened, but a little further into the heart of the underworld is the final door. Festus slashes his palm and performs a complex and unfamiliar ritual, the unwarding of the tomb’s door. Once it’s opened, they see a small chamber, empty except for a niche at the far wall. In that niche is what looks like a bundle of ancient rags.
There is a moment where the entire group falls quiet. Then, Victrix ushers them in, offering to guard the rear. As they enter, one of the Legio soldiers suddenly an unexpectedly lunges forward, slashing Festus’s throat open so viciously that his head is practically severed, rendering him into torpor.
Their eyes flashing yellow, both soldiers turn to face the group. Victrix draws her sword and steps in front of the door. As a brawl in the tiny space ensues, it quickly becomes clear that not only is Victrix fighting on the side of the Striges but also that, confusingly, she appears not to be one of them. The former is made manifestly clear when she attempts to use the battle as cover to destroy Senex. After no small struggle, the coterie triumphs and Gaius, in a final monstrous act, diablerizes the treasonous Victrix. She had, indeed, been free of possession, possessed only of a deep and murderous hatred of Rome and all that it stood for. This hatred was enough to allow the Striges to sweet-talk her into acts from the murder of Cunctator and of Callipygia’s sister (these were early experimentations by the Striges to try and see how to control propinquii and humans alike) to the failed attempt at snatching Crispus, and now this.
• • •
Carrying the bodies of Senex, Festus, and the two Legio guards, the group returns to the Camarilla, to the sight of Julia Sabina, head down, deep in thought. She spars verbally with Gaius, making a few lewd comments that seem almost in keeping with her (not so) secret sexual dark side, but it’s a side of her that never before was attracted to Gaius in that way, so he is wary. Indeed, as she raises her head at last, her eyes flash yellow. She reveals herself to be a spirit that was closely allied with the Black Cat, and she tells him the Cat was very proud of his progress.
He is able to drive the spirit form her without destroying the body, and when it escapes she is left in deep torpor. (This is how the Owl was able to possess her—it first took one of her human “pleasure” slaves, who then waited until daytime and beat Sabina into torpor most viciously, perhaps in vengeance for how she had treated him those many years. The spirit then took her beaten, torpid body, and has ridden it for several nights now, sowing discord throughout the Necropolis and using the mantle of Senex authority to hunt down and destroy Julii one by one.)
• • •
Lessened in size and strength, and subdued in manner, the small group—minus Tiberius, who is still the lesser partner in his own body and mind—gather at the Marii compound. Gaius has worked a form of blood magic to protect the party’s torpid Julii, his own version of the spell Nocturna and the Augurs are creating. They decide that the time has come to move East as discussed, waiting only for the next night to gather up Nocturna and Tiberius, pack a train, and say farewell to the Eternal City.